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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction

Posted: 19 May 2014 04:00 PM PDT

I APPROACHED Amok with curiosity, little anticipating the exhilarating ride that I had signed up for. It was simply amazing to dive into worlds that encompassed everything from warm childhood fairytales and an alternate yet strangely familiar present, to the distant terrifying future!

I found this collection of 24 short stories set in the Asia-Pacific region to be the most satisfying anthology I have read in years, and it will stay with me for a long time. Here's a brief rundown of tales that particularly caught my attention.

Three interesting stories address the unexplored power of memory, when human beings defy nature to remember, to forget, or to remember differently. Tabitha Sin's Dreams, for instance, looks into the possibility of recreating a happy memory differently. Can sorrow be buried beneath a different memory of the past? This highly emotional piece highlights a unique bond in danger of being shaken by reality.

In contrast, In Memoriam by Fadzlishah Johanabas looks ahead, to a desired future where you may choose to forget. There is a stark contrast between the tale's cold white setting and the main character's burst of emotions. The non-linear narration took some getting used to, but after some flipping back and forth, it became fun.

The third story involving memory is Bright Student where author Terence Toh introduces a potion that allows the main character to magnify her memory's capacity – in exchange for her shadow. Why do we need our shadows? And as someone who still has nightmares of sitting for examinations long after graduation, I can relate to the character's desperation and understand her actions, starting with her strange encounter at KL's Petaling Street.

Another trio that caught my attention are three Asian fairytales that unveil multiple facets of love among captivating characters. Kitsune by K.Z. Morano portrays the strong desire to hang on to love even at the cost of compromising the chance of a normal life. This haunting piece was inspired by Japanese folklore about the spirit of the fox.

Lola by Shenoa Carroll-Bradd is a heartbreaking account of a girl's last day with her grandmother during the WWII Japanese occupation of the Philippines and how an encounter with a mythical creature leads to maturity and understanding. This one kept me thinking long after I finished reading.

In Moon Rabbit by Jo Wu, a character from Chinese mythology bravely leaps into modern times and attempts to fit in. It is simplicity and complexity rolled into one, and I could feel the loneliness, and then the contempt, of the moon rabbit.

I also liked these four stories set in post-apocalyptic worlds and futures. When The Rice Was Gone by Dominica Malcolm is set in a bleak South Korea where a last meal of bibimbab ("mixed rice", rice topped with vegetables and proteins) brightens up the day. I was intrigued by how slowly the writer revealed the unusual relationships between the three main characters.

In No Name Island by Kawika Guillermo, the habitat on a primitive island is destroyed when man plays God, and fear pushes a character to entrust a loved one to a stranger. It was uplifting to see how the native girl character matures and accepts her destiny, yet clings to her heritage also.

In And Then It Rained by Rebecca Freeman, a single woman and child strive to make a life for themselves in a barren, frightening world – and then a dashing stranger walks in, bringing hope with him. The main character's courage is admirable. And Operation Toba: 2049 by Kris Williamson addresses the beauty of second chances, and making tough decisions when the clock is racing. This is a fast and intense story of love and priorities.

I look forward to reading more works of fiction from all these writers, especially on a larger canvas.

Gretel and The Dark

Posted: 19 May 2014 04:00 PM PDT

FAIRYTALES were dark in origin, with macabre and gruesome details.

Sleeping Beauty? Wasn't woken up with a kiss by a heroic prince, but rather when the babies she conceived after being raped while unconscious sucked out the wooden sliver that knocked her out originally.

Snow White? Again, wasn't woken up by true love's kiss, but rather when the bit of apple stuck in her throat was dislodged as the prince moved her glass coffin after begging the dwarves for her. Some versions say it was after he fell in love with her at first sight, others imply a more lustful agenda.

But Hansel and Gretel is one of those fairytales that have retained its fairly grisly tone, what with parents abandoning their children, cannibalism, and murder committed by children.

That tone is carried over into this debut novel by Eliza Granville.

Gretel And The Dark starts off with a fairytale-like prologue, which invokes the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but also has two abandoned children (along with a Shadow) a la Hansel and Gretel.

But then the first chapter segues into 1899 Vienna, where we meet psychoanalyst Dr Josef Breuer (based on the real-life mentor to Dr Sigmund Freud), who has just returned from his summer home to escape his nagging wife and loveless marriage.

He is currently housing and treating a Jane Doe who had been discovered unconscious and naked on the streets of Vienna by his servant Benjamin's brother.

The young girl, whom he names Lilie, claims to be an automaton, but soon arouses some very human feelings within both Dr Breuer and Benjamin.

Dr Breuer, who has had a questionable relationship with another female patient in the past, suspects that Lilie might be linked to a "gentleman's club" called the Thélème that is reputed to be a den of perverse sexual activity. This belief is reinforced when Lilie insists that she is on a mission to kill a "monster".

But this is just one part of the novel.

Dr Breuer, Lilie and Benjamin's story are intercut with another story set later in Nazi Germany during World War II. Here, we are introduced to young Krysta, who has just lost her mother. Her father, a doctor, moves her away from their home and her nurse, Greet, for a job that will help "keep her safe" – a job involving "animal people" kept in a zoo, scientific "progress", and a lot of guilt expressed in compulsive hand-washing.

Naturally, Krysta is unhappy, and her spoilt brat attitude, along with her preoccupied father, doesn't make it any easier for her to adapt to her new surroundings. Greet, although not physically present, pops up very frequently in Krysta's memories, especially in her recollection of the gruesome tales Greet liked to tell.

These tales, along with her doll, Lotte, help Krysta cope when her life is turned upside down in a way she could never have imagined.

That the two stories are linked is obvious; the question is, how are they related?

Is this a science fiction novel involving time-travel and machines, or an intergenerational story, involving unexpected links between the characters in both tales, or something else altogether? I can tell you that the answer came as a surprise to me – slightly improbable, but understandable.

But the payoff in reading this book is more than the ending and resolution. Granville writes well, and the stories are fairly absorbing, with characters that draw you in.

But be warned that this is a dark story, with hints of hidden desire and sexual perversions, of how inhuman man can be, and what people do just to survive.

If you have a thing for macabre stories – fairy tales or otherwise – then this is the book for you. Similarly, if you wish to read a more fantastical and personalised take on the Third Reich, then this is the book for you.

Not for the faint of heart.

Cruel Beauty

Posted: 19 May 2014 04:00 PM PDT

A STUNNING Gothic fairy tale that seamlessly blends science fiction, romance, mystery and mythology,Cruel Beauty is easily one of the best young adult fiction books of the year.

Lyrical, lush, and absolutely lovely, Cruel Beauty tells the tale of Nyx Triskelion, the quietly angry dark daughter of the Hermetic scholar Leonidas who made a deal with the devil many years ago – a deal that robbed him of his wife.

As a consequence of the deal, Nyx is betrothed to the ruler of her homeland, a shadowy figure known only as the "Gentle Lord" who strikes bargains that never quite turn out the way you imagine. But her father – one of the wisest men in the land – has been training Nyx since birth to kill the immortal ruler and break the 900-year-old curse placed on the land. She is, as she says, raised to marry a monster.

When Nyx first meets the demon lord Ignifex, however, she can't quite resist being beguiled by his strange charm and patient ways; although her hate and resentment for a childhood lost simmer in her gut, Ignifex understands her in a way that's compelling and new.

"Everyone who ever bargains with me is convinced that he is righteous.... But you know what you are and what you deserve," he tells her at one point, knowing that she is plotting his downfall and understanding that she must.

Set in a mystical world where shadowy dark spirits rob men of all they hold dear, this modern-day Beauty And The Beast – which in its turn was borrowed from the Greek myth of Cupid and Pysche – is also inspired by the myth of Persephone and Hades. It draws from other myths too, like the story of Typhon (the demonic spirits in Cruel Beauty are named "children of Typhon", the Greek father of monsters).

It's no surprise that Rosamund Hodge studied English literature, as the imagery is stunning, thoughtful and deliberate; and the references relevant and a pleasure to note. The book is a steampunk melange of romance, duty, and the demons without and within.

Family ties are treated with care by Hodge, who takes on the trope of the Reluctant Hero with a deft touch, perfectly capturing Nyx's feelings of resentment for sister Astraia – as light as she is dark – her disgust for her Aunt Telomache who is romantically involved with her widowed father, and her respectful hatred of Leonidas himself.

There's also the love triangle that flies in the face of cliche with its twist: despite her burgeoning affection for Ignifex despite all she's been taught, Nyx also develops feelings for his grey, ghostly manservant Shade – a dead ringer for Ignifex, but almost perpetually silent and harbouring a dark secret which he couldn't reveal if you begged. Faced with a choice between two men who look almost exactly the same, it's telling who she chooses at the very end.

Hodge balances the richness of Ignifex's magical, maze-like castle with the drab tedium of Nyx's captivity deftly, applying a similar magnetic touch to the unlikable yet oddly compelling characters – nobody here is a hero, even the sweet Astraia has a vicious streak, while Nyx comes to terms with and owns her flaws, bearing them like a bloodied standard.

The ending, too, is a glorious riot of colour and emotion – the lovely thing about Hodge is her commitment to emotional follow-through without sounding cheesy. It's refreshing and lovely to see a female lead embrace her selfishness and cast aside weepy duty in favour of her own happiness, and equally enjoyable when a victory is won anyway – when all's said and done, fairytales must end happily ever after.

But in Cruel Beauty the happy ending is hard-won and bittersweet: nothing is without cost, and along the journey not a few things are lost. If there's any criticism of this novel I can deliver, it's that it's too short; it is one of the few YA books to not cheaply trick you into buying a series of "filler" novels yet it's the one that could perhaps benefit from an expansion to better tell its tale. Hodge's prose is deft and thoughtful, and thankfully she refrains from using Nyx as an author proxy.

Cruel Beauty is a thoughtful, stunning love letter to Greek mythology and a host of other legends while managing to be unique and vividly drawn in its own right.


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